Gratitude is Resistance
By Diana Butler Bass
May we not keep our blessings, but give them away. —THOM M. SHUMAN
On January 21, 2017, I woke early and got ready to take the Metro from my home in northern Virginia to downtown Washington, D.C. For months, a single word had blocked out the day before on my calendar: “Inauguration.” My daughter and I had planned to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s becoming America’s first female president. Instead, because of a sad and unexpected election result, we stayed home on Inauguration Day. One day later, and alone because my daughter went back to college, I journeyed into the city for an alternate event: the Women’s March.
My husband dropped me off at the subway station nearest our house, something he does for me on a fairly regular basis.
“Wow. Look at all those buses,” he exclaimed as he pointed to a convoy of charters with North Carolina license plates.
“And look at that line!” I replied, directing his attention toward the entrance where more than a hundred people waited. “I’ve never seen so many people here.”
“I wonder if it is like this at every stop?” he said. “It’s so early. It doesn’t even start for hours. Could be a big day. I bet this will be something.” He pulled up to the “Kiss and Ride” and, dutifully obeying the sign, pecked me on the cheek. “Have fun! Call when you want to be picked up.”
I hopped out, took a bright fuchsia crocheted hat from my coat pocket, put it on my head, and joined a group of women who were carrying signs and wearing identical headgear.
With the exception of the pink hats and the protest signs, the metro car resembled a scene from rush hour at the Tokyo subway. On the train, there was barely a place to stand. When we disembarked at L’Enfant Plaza, thousands coursed through the station.
I had arranged to meet some friends—mostly clergywomen—in front of the National Museum of the American Indian. Although the crowd was already larger than any I had ever seen (and it would grow into one of the largest protest gatherings in history), I arrived first at the meet-up location. The patio was already jammed with marchers. I worried that my friends would not find me, as I was just one pink hat among thousands.
I looked around and realized that the museum had placed huge boulders around its entrance as (I suspected) both a landscape design and security feature. I scrambled up on the rocks. From there, I could both survey the crowd and be seen.
Across the growing crowd, hands waved in recognition! My friends navigated through the throng to the rocks. There was no place to stand on the patio, so they joined me on that artificial mount (and the concrete bench at its base). We greeted each other with hugs and tears. Finally, one said, “We brought the signs!”
She passed them out to the dozen or so of us who made up this small Christian band, with our pink hats, ordination stoles, and clergy collars. A few other women who were pastors saw us and joined the party, and she gave them signs too. I looked at the placard she handed me, a piece of black cardboard with rounded white letters that read:
Blessed are the poor—Matthew 5
The Beatitudes! Our signs were Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. I laughed with delight as I read them all:
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the hungry
Not only were there signs bearing the actual words from the Bible, but my friends had added a few special updated Beatitudes for the day:
Blessed are the women
Blessed are the uninsured
Blessed are the immigrants
Blessed are the LGBTQ
We were marching with the Beatitudes.
Or not. Because we were stuck. The crowd had so filled in that it was difficult to move, much less march. We stayed up on the rocks, wearing pink hats and clerical collars and holding up blessings as women slowly filed by below.
“Yeah! Blessed are the poor!” a voice shouted from the crowd. “I’m mourning a lot right now,” yelled another. “I must be really blessed!”
And more replies: “God bless the immigrants!” “Jesus welcomes everybody!” “Blessed are the protestors!” “Even politicians would be blessed if they passed single-payer health insurance!” “Blessed are the working mothers!”
Some pointed at the signs, commenting: “Look, the church is here!” “Who knew that Christians would show up at a march like this?” Others seemed surprised to see clergy: “Blessed are women preachers!” And surprised by the presence of collared women, more than a few marchers stopped to talk and pray.
My mind wandered back to the New Testament, to an ancient hillside in Galilee, where Jesus had stood just above the crowds and uttered these blessings for the first time. Looking out at the poor, the weak, the oppressed, women, and slaves, he preached his radical Sermon on the Mount, proclaiming the promise of a new society. Although the words were so familiar to me because I had heard them all my life, when I stood up on the rocks in the middle of the Women’s March, I realized that Jesus’s sermon added up to one thing: “Blessed are all of you who are disregarded by the powerful, for you are God’s beloved community.”
Jesus blessed history’s losers. No wonder people all those years ago had listened. No wonder they remembered and wrote it down. No wonder it is still so powerful two millennia later. The blessings were protest against injustice.
I looked down from the artificial hillside, and my heart moved as I watched the crowds. I held my sign up higher and shouted, “Blessed are the poor!” Some women yelled back, “Blessed are the poor!” And others cheered. Yes, they cheered the Beatitudes.
And tears came. The day before, I had cried because I was afraid and sad. But on this day I cried because of blessings. For the first time in two months, I felt grateful.
Gratitude is an emotion we experience as individuals, and we can each practice gratitude as a personal ethic, the foundation of a good life. Yet gratitude is inherently social; it always connects us as individuals to others. Communal gratitude looks and feels wonderful when festivity, play, and ecstasy draw us together. Just as personal gratefulness comprises both emotions and ethics, so does communal gratitude. The grateful-feeling community can—and should—lead to a grateful society. Feeling grateful is not only play, but it can be a form of politics. Gratitude is joy, and gratitude is justice.
True gratitude, real gratefulness, the kind of transformative thanksgiving that makes all things new, cannot be quiet in the face of injustice. If we embrace the sort of gratitude that changes our individual lives, it will revolutionize our political lives as well. We move from a personal ethic of gratefulness toward a public one. The “me” of gratitude must extend to the “we” of gratitude as an ethic, a vision of community based on habits and practices of grace and gifts, of cultivating a wide field of vision and deepening our awareness of humility and blessing, of setting tables and sharing food for all. Gratitude is not merely resilience.
Gratitude is resistance too. It is time for all of us to join the resistance.
Excerpted from Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. Copyright © 2018 by Diana Butler Bass. Published by HarperOne.